Team penning: Where the people drive the action, but the cows often win
by John Stang
A cutter (above) and a blocker try to control the ebb and flow of a herd. Credit: John Stang
The cows kicked their butts.
Trio after trio of riders attacked the herd of 30 cows in the Yelm arena, trying to cut three cattle out of the group to chase into a small pen almost 180 feet away. It had to be done in less than 60 seconds.
On a good run, 35 to 60 seconds is plenty of time. One trio of riders actually did it in less than 21 seconds.
But during the same early June competition, the cows were tricky, downright malevolent. They seem to read the riders’ minds and taunt the humans. The critters busted some moves that left the riders flabbergasted.
“It was like they were laughing at us,” said rider Winnie Bartsma.
Once, Bartsma and her horse Snip futilely chased a rambunctious cow around and around in a circle like a Bugs Bunny cartoon until time ran out.
This is “team penning”: a cowboy sport that includes three Washington clubs based in Yelm, the Yakima Valley and Spokane.
Three riders and three horses vs. 30 cows and the clock.
It’s pretty much like fast break basketball. And takes many of the same skills.
The ability to see all the constantly moving pieces in a glance. Knowing where those shifting pieces will be several seconds in the future. A healthy dose of horse and cow psychology. The ability to pivot and react in a split second. Knowing when to slowly nudge for a few seconds, and when to sprint hell for leather. Having three horses and three riders functioning as a single unit, constantly improvising on the run.
And there’s also the mental toughness to shake off the fact that you’ll lose a lot.
Sometimes the cows are docile and clumped in a favorable way. Other times, they’re wicked smart. Or the wrong ones wander in the wrong direction. Or the right ones wander in the wrong direction.
“It’s a game of luck,” said Janna McIntire, riding her horse Leo-Na.
Bartsma, 53, a farmer, and McIntire, 36, a hospital lab worker, are mile-apart rural neighbors outside of Ellensburg.
Both have been horsewomen for a long time, competing in various equestrian sports. About three years ago, they got curious about team penning. It was something they hadn’t tried before, and it looked intriguing.
Living nearby is Roger Braa, 49, a professional horse trainer who also teaches team penning, and was on the team that tallied a 20.57-seconds score on June 7. They signed up with him, practicing weekly. All three compete monthly at Stewart’s Arena just outside of Yelm as part of the 250-member Westside Team Penning Club.
There are reasons they have stuck with it. Exploring facets of the more finesse-oriented pieces of horsemanship. Upping their games in the human-vs.-cow chess match. The same competitive reasons that drive a pro or amateur athlete to improve his or her skills in their game.
Team penning is played in a 200-by-100-foot arena with a small pen at one end. A herd of 30 cows, who all wear tags with numbers, is clumped a the other end, with a starting line/foul line placed roughly a third of the arena from the herd area. Three of the cows are numbered “1.” Three are numbered “2.” Three are numbered “3,” and so on.
When the first of a trio of riders crosses that line, a judge yells out a number three times such as “Seven, seven, seven” — and the 60-second clock starts. One rider “cuts” out the first cow with a “7” on its back while the other two riders block the rest of the herd from crossing the foul line. As soon as the first cow is cut out, one of the blockers charges into the herd to cut out the second No. 7 cow, and so on.
The riders have 60 seconds to cut three numbered cows out of the herd and drive them into the pen at the other end of the arena. No more than one “dirty cow” —one without the designated number — is allowed across the line. If two cows become “dirty,” the three-rider team is disqualified.
“It’s a blur,” McIntire said.
If all goes well — less than half of the time — the three riders will end up sprinting their horses to the pen’s end of the arena, chasing the three correct cows ahead of them. During that three- or four-second sprint, the riders sort themselves out into three roles. The leftmost automatically blocks the “hole” — a narrow gap between the pen and the arena’s fence. The center rider become the inner part of a pivoting two-rider sweep around the pen’s right side to chase the cows through a narrow gate in the pen. The rightmost rider is the outer sweeper.
A usually high-pitched cowboy chorus punctuates the round. Yips! Yaws! Hees! Whoops! Hohs! Whooos!
“It’s an adrenaline rush to ride fast and ride hard,” Bartsma said.
When the third cow enters the pen in less than 60 seconds, the team scores the amount of time it took to get the final cow there. The lower, the better.
If the digital arena clock strikes 60 before the third cow hits the pen, that team is disqualified. More than half of the time, the cows win.
The team makeups and final scoring in team penning are complicated. There are several skill-based divisions with lots of cross-pollination of riders between the classes. Individuals usually belong to several trios. In fact, one classification — Pro Am Novice — requires one team member to be a top-level rider, a middle-level rider and a rookie rider.
To have a chance of winning prize money, a team has to compete twice. It is almost impossible to place with a disqualifying round.
Each team of riders pays to compete, with a huge chunk of the cash going to prize money. In at least one spot in Montana, the competition can be big enough to draw paying spectators. Here in Yelm, you just wander in and watch, or go to a small balcony.
On June 7, one of Bartsma’s teams took third in the Pro Am Novice class with a combined time for two 60-second rounds of 67.26 seconds. The three teammates split $519. McIntire didn’t place anywhere in the money.
On July 11, Bartsma didn’t place in the money place despite a 31.5-second round that included her chasing down and herding back a cow sprinting from the pen in the final seconds. Meanwhile, McIntire did well. Her team took first in the Pro Am Novice class with a two-round time of 67.34 seconds — earning $1,037 to the three. Another of her teams took second in the novice class with a two-round time of 79.52 seconds — which paid $614 to the three.
Bartsma and McIntire are classified as novices — roughly in the middle of divisions. That’s based on a complicated grading system that looks at their horsemanship, the skill level of their horses, their ability to read cattle and previous money winnings.
A mob of cows is usually a single pulsating amoeba-like organism. But sometimes, individual cows wander off and scatter for reasons known only to themselves.
But the basic instinct of a 30-cow herd is to clump tightly together. Cows fear predators higher up on the food chain. And when things get weird — like a horse plunging into them — they want to bunch up.
“They’re prey. They want to be in the herd where it is safe. They want to be in the middle of the herd where they won’t be eaten,” Bartsma said.
Sometimes cows with the called-out number are hard to find in the swirling mass. Sometimes they are buried deep in the herd. if the riders are lucky, the sought-after cows could be hanging at the edge of the herd. Routinely, just finding the the correct cows takes up much precious time.
Sometimes a rider will split a herd into two or three segments, and the segments will quickly gravitate back into one bunch. If one or two correct cows are cut out of the herd and parked down the arena, the blocking riders have to make sure they don’t trot back to the herd.
It’s a game that calls for aggressiveness and a soft touch — sometimes within seconds of each other.
“Slow is fast” is an oft-recited mantra.
Frequently, a rider has to nudge his or her horse gently into the herd to nestle the horse into the right angle to extract the right cow without causing a confusing mini-stampede. A related pitfall is cutting out the desired cow with a some undesired cattle accompanying it. Team penning becomes a swiftly changing game of angles and wedges.
Another subtlety is the “bubble.” As other teams tackled the herds, riders study the cows. How close does a rider have to get to a cow in this particular herd before it reacts to the horse and moves — 3 feet, 15 feet or 30 feet? That’s good to know.
Horse and rider have to learn to act and react with a single mind. Riders have to teach horses how to turn and run, or pivot in place — all in a split second.
The horse has to be aggressive. Bartsma’s horse Snip has a badass attitude toward cows, able to stare into a cow’s eyes and make it back down. But cows can be just as badass and tricky. A “9” cow gave many teams fits on July 12 and once deliberately rammed Snip and Bartsma to escape being herded along.
Riders can’t sit back and study a herd after the 60-second clock begins. One or two seconds of hesitation can doom a team. Riders have to develop gut instincts, and then learn to trust their guts, Braa said.
“If you even think about it, you’re behind the cow,” Bartsma said.
The Yelm club runs three herds of 30 cows at its meets, switching out them out every few rounds so the 30 in the arena are fresh. But after a while, the cows figure out what is going on.
They feint and pull juking moves on the riders. On June 7, a couple cows spun 180 degrees as they hit the pen’s gate and dashed away — snatching victory from the riders at literally the last second.
Bartsma said, “They learn just as we did.” And the game of wits continues among riders, horses and cow continues — and goes to higher levels.
All photos: John Stang. Diagram created with Piktochart